Saturday, June 30, 2012

...even from your humble hand

If we tell ourselves the truth, they are ALL days of miracle and wonder, aren't they?  Somewhere within, under or beside whatever fakakta C.O.D. parcel has been randomly dropped on the stoop reside gems.  Pearls.  Gifts.  If I tell myself the truth, I can probably not name any day ever that did not bring one welcome, valuable contribution.

Today, at the top of a list that will continue to grow, is word that my nephew Griffin and his wife Meg are now the over-joyed parents of Josie Simone, born in Shanghai, bestowing light all around.  Welcome, beautiful girl; international congratulations.  Miracle and wonder.

In my Baptist Sunday school days we sang "Brighten the Corner Where You Are."  Over the past several weeks there have been hunched and shadowy forms - and not entirely without cause - perched on my head, shoulders, the foot of my bed, selling their only product, gloom, with the zeal of mattress retailers on a holiday weekend.  During some moments I lost track of those deeply-rooted instructions and became hunched and shadowy myself, not who and how I wish to be.  Sing along if you wish:

  1. Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do,
    Do not wait to shed your light afar;
    To the many duties ever near you now be true,
    Brighten the corner where you are.
    • Refrain:
      Brighten the corner where you are!
      Brighten the corner where you are!
      Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar;
      Brighten the corner where you are!
  2. Just above are clouded skies that you may help to clear,
    Let not narrow self your way debar;
    Though into one heart alone may fall your song of cheer,
    Brighten the corner where you are.
  3. Here for all your talent you may surely find a need,
    Here reflect the bright and Morning Star;
    Even from your humble hand the Bread of Life may feed,
    Brighten the corner where you are.
When something is weighing and waiting, though I may be able to quiet my mind temporarily, my body still unmasks me for the charlatan I am.  It breaks out in patches of unsightliness - eczema, cold sores, eye inflamations.  Yet, when I get out of myself, truly step away from thoughts of what might or might not happen, I am not beset, not afflicted.  For all their immeasurable flashes of illumination, our minds have that other side, the so-called friend who delights in sharing bad news.  And she always drops by when we are already twitchy and fragile.

Twelve-step programs have to be among the best advocates of reaching out, of pouring balm on our own aching hearts by being a beacon for someone else.  No better way to forget one's troubles than to be the ear for what another is going through.  We all have the potential to be sources of light, it is the mandate; at the very least it is one of the assignments.  As one of the truths, it is also easy to forget.  One can become awfully wrapped up in woe, real and imagined, gathering speed - and reinforcements - on that downhill roll.

In opposition to the far-flung imaginings and forecasts of those internal wet blankets that would snuff out our attempts at a fragile glow arrives Josie Simone, bright and unflickering.  A rocket, a reminder to make room for, to seek out the distant lanterns that tell us respite is at hand, is always at hand, though it may be temporarily disguised.

I feel I have weaseled and wriggled out of my way-lighting duties for too long. We are all needed on the front lines.  While I coax my flame into, I hope, useful brightness, Josie Simone gets to do the heavy lifting.  How grand that she is more than equal to the task.  Then it will be your turn.  Do not wait. xo

Monday, June 25, 2012

The sound of fish dreaming

How I didn't know of Barry Lopez, I can't even guess.  I found him through Claire Beynon and her post quoting his work, a quote I saved and have returned to.  My wish is that it and his way of being, not only in but of the natural mystery, will seep in and awaken sleeping memories.

Photo credit: - Death Valley, desert wilderness

When I was growing up my family traveled to California's back country, wilderness, as part of the research for my father's magazine articles.  By the time my siblings and I grew accustomed to those silent journeys, I had long since detached from myself.  Hours in the car, especially when we drove at night, only exaggerated the practice, at which I was becoming skilled, of living entirely in the fantasies in my head.

Now as I read even a few paragraphs of Lopez I interpret them as the work of a present mind. As one who has been absent, I feel myself yearning to make such graceful leaps, stumble-free transitions from one aspect of life as he finds it to another.   I want to go back and gather, a twig and pebble at a time, what I wasn't able to absorb or even connect to then.  I wonder if any child part escaped dissociation and does that part remember what those remote landscapes told me.

A journey of this magnitude, the ability to revisit vignettes of the past in an altered form, seems at least like an alchemical process, if not outright magic.  Yet it feels possible, requiring all the precision of alchemy, the focus, the stillness, the knowing of all the ways in which this self differs from that.  As the idea has only been with me a few days, there has been no time yet to test it.  I believe that its appearance even as a faint notion, a whim or fancy, gives it some credibility.  If we, as the beings into which we have evolved, contain all the parts and experiences of who and where we've been,  why would it not be possible to return and know them differently?  We are constantly given the opportunity, even an inner urging, to re-evaluate people and situations, see them in a new light, find what they added and forget what we thought they took away.

The spiritual aspects of this experiment seem to be its greatest purpose.  The inner Stanley meets the inner Livingston; the self as explorer and the lost tribe it discovers.  If I can find my way into these forgotten chambers, my next hope is to be able to write of them as they deserve.  If I get there, I'll be back to tell you the story.

"I could then examine myself as though I were an empty abalone shell, held up in my own hands, held up to the wind to see what sort of noise I would make. I know the sound - the sound of fish dreaming, twilight in a still pool downstream. . . "

from RIVER NOTES by Barry Lopez

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Believe everything."

Jointed paper doll torso, M. Kelly
“What should I believe? thought Shadow, and the voice came back to him from somewhere deep beneath the world, in a bass rumble: Believe everything.”
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Paper makes me happy

New Yorker cover (a favorite envelope material) by Maira Kalman.

More about these handmade envelopes
Japanese washi paper-inspired fabric

In the Lawrence Kasdan movie, BODY HEAT, William Hurt's character, the less-than-scrupulous lawyer Ned Racine, says something to the effect that sometimes hell comes down so heavy he feels like he should wear a hat. Yeah, a hard hat.  Didn't you see the warning signs?

Having decided that the bumps on my head help tell my story, I blithely go about bare-headed.  Where I am likely to turn when not much feels solid enough to hang onto is color and pattern and form, which I find so accessible in paper.  When I hit the level of function where all of what may possibly be grown-up about me has ceded its diminished power to the pre-schooler, my default, my hope of getting out of this, period, is to sift through a collection of art and scrap papers, allowing what is bright and detailed and familiar to remind me about love.

We do love things.  One hopes we love them differently than we love people and creatures and what isn't inert, but love them we do.  My romance with color pencils and rubber stamps has been documented here - and elsewhere - but paper was solace most recently and it sounds unhinged to say so.  I have always made things with paper, saved things made of paper, spent my allowance on gift wrap and tissue and paper flowers.  Paper, including books and magazines, is a comfort to have close at hand, hypo-allergenic and safe for those of us who wheeze and swell around cats and dogs.

Paper madness is benign, as vices go.  Storage is the primary consideration, cost less so for there is much to be had for free - the patterned linings of security envelopes, magazine covers and images, pages of discarded books, foreign newspapers, colorful store bags and packaging, self-created patterns reproduced on a color copier, junk mail.

What is true is that we can become lost.  Circumstances and the emotions they raise leave us shell-shocked.  We may be soothed, helped in finding the quiet in a frightened and jabbering mind, by music or humor or nature, all of which bring not only their own magic but act as reminders that the world is bigger than what is shocking us in the moment.  We are bigger than our displacement, though it may seem just an intellectual concept in the midst of crisis.

The simpler our joys, the easier they are to access when we feel trapped in a corner.  The ocean makes me happy, too.  I can watch it endlessly and grow still.  Paper, though, is always within reach, good paper, bright paper, am-I-too-odd-for-words-and-I-don't-care bits of tactile and visual stimulation that reawaken a despondent heart.  Good old paper.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Running a day behind

"Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

William Butler Yeats

Through not-surprising inattention, I missed that yesterday was Yeats' birthday. My thanks to Susan T. Landry for the reminder and the poem she shared. In another life, century and state-of-mind, I was a student in Modern Poetry 101. It was there that I met Yeats and there that I was taught the only way to appreciate poetry was to know precisely what the poet meant in every word, phrase, pause, line break and nuance. It should have been called Deconstruction 101 and it nearly ruined poetry for me and me for it. I suspect the baffling process of snipping, with finely-pointed embroidery scissors, all the stitches out of art quilts made of words contributed to a once long-held belief that my brain was not quite equal to the task of participating.

Then, in a new century and with luck the leprechauns would envy, my heart was yanked back to Yeats and others previously unknown. Catapulted into the midst of an ongoing banquet hosted with patience and generosity by poets around the world, I learned that I could appreciate Yeats in my unscholarly fashion and not be wrong. I met a friend, a mentor who invited me to love the words I loved for how they spoke to, how they moved me, as I remained often clueless about the intent or the back story.

Being a day behind the celebrating of Mr. Yeats is a forgivable omission. Surely there are poets born on June 14. We may not know their names; we don't need to. We can thank them in their anonymity for all the ways they make our lives richer, for the fact they may overlook our possibly uninformed personal and emotional responses to their work. Happy Birthday, poets.

“The poet's job is to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name, to tell the truth in such a beautiful way, that people cannot live without it.” 
― Jane Kenyon

Monday, June 11, 2012

Whose business?

A picture of good health.  Oy.  Phrenology: fact or fiction?

My latest inspiration to block squirrels from making their mad revolutions on the wheel in my head is a large plastic cone, such as would keep a dog from gnawing at some healing portion of its anatomy.  I'm not sure which direction it should point, for maximum effectiveness.  I have seen squirrels find their way to a bird feeder using, I swear, ropes and pulleys, springs and ladders.  I will have them nowhere near my head and will go to any lengths necessary.

One path to a quieter mind involves leaving mistaken beliefs or behaviors  in the string-tied shoebox on the curb.  For me, this requires letting go of the illusion that I have control over anything not specifically connected to me or my actions.  And even then, it is iffy terrain.  Life, that is Big L Life, has the upper hand always.  Plans?  Hah, it says.  I scoff at your plans.

What has become clear to me over decades of trial and error is that the business of someone else is not mine.  It never has been, it never will be.  I know the squirrels have gotten past the barrier when I start looking at your stuff and not at my own.  This realization snaps me across the wrist a dozen times a day, minimum.  It usually involves those closest to us, those with whom we share space, on whom we depend for support and assistance, those whose stuff it is so easy to observe and judge.

The phrase that revealed this character defect/human frailty to me referred to the situation as, "...allowing the dignity of choice" to the other party.  I am not proud to admit I was once a person who held such thoughts as, "If you loved me, you'd take out the trash NOW."  Even though it was never said out loud, it is not hard to understand one source of potholes on the road to long-term romance. 

I count this awakening, this knowledge, as one of my great gifts.  Boundaries are grey areas for any of us who come from lands where they were unknown, not modeled in a healthy way, continually ignored.  Learning where I stop and you begin is like becoming fluent in spoken and written Mandarin in six months.  One is impossible and the other seemed so.

I cannot abide scolding.  I become small and powerless and diminished in every way.  I am the imperfect, oh, so imperfect, child.  I also cannot bear having to explain myself.  The reasons are the reasons, the product of life as I experienced it.  No one can know what it was or is like in this skin.  I hear the Jets singing "Dear Officer Krupke."  I am not speaking of felonies nor misdemeanors, simply choices that don't mirror ideals of order, the dreaded Puritan Ethic, choices that hint at neglect or indifference or fatigue.

Once I realized how deeply, vehemently I loathe being scolded, I knew I could never again be one of those people without being aware I was the one who was wrong.   I administer an easy test when my eye wanders away from my teetering piles of imperfection to rest on yours.  I simply ask, is this my business?  Are these my socks/books/full wastebaskets/unreturned phone calls?  No.  Mine are here, where I can do something about them or not and thank you so much for not quizzing me about it.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Lotte Lenya is lost in the stars

It has been a week, less than that, actually, of lifting off this planet and venturing through the cosmos.  The transit of Venus across the face of the sun, the passing of Ray Bradbury.  I knew the words but not the context of this song. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury

We are more than we would have been without you.   You saw so much farther than we could.  Instead of scolding us for being short-sighted, you gave us lenses and maps and velocity.

And the words.

From you we learned the word Martian did not mean little green men but possibility. Our collective desire to claim you as a kindred spirit must have seem crushing at times, yet you never gave half measures. When we gathered up ourselves as the disheveled wandering stars that we are and brought them to your pages, we found a benevolent mirror.

My tears, of sorrow, of loss, are also prompted by eternal wonder for the magic that you were, you are and always will be.   My heart joins those of all who love you.

Read more about Ray Bradbury here.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A cabin by a lake

Though it seems 50 years ago, at least, it has only been 23, summer of 1989.  I'd just been not-selected for a writing fellowship and decided to build my own.  Oh, the days of full-time employment with generous benefits.  One of my co-workers recommended a cabin by a lake, one he and his wife rented in the winter for skiing.  It was available for three weeks in August.  Doing this was more than a response to rejection, it felt like an imperative.

The property management company sent a map and list of regulations.  My Selectric II and I, with some art supplies and cassettes  for the drive, wound up the mountains, filled with expectation.  I never wrote - nor typed - a word.  In those days I was not good at being solitary, no matter how stubbornly I believed I longed for that emptiness.

Rather than bear the three weeks alone, I went back and brought my son to vacation with me.  As we did down in the flatlands, we went to the movies, seeing Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for a second time, crying again when the ant dies.  When the program changed we went back for Turner and Hooch and Tim Burton's Batman.  The retreat cabin had no tv, an unfamiliar, less-than-comfortable state for a child of the VCR age.  Even the radio didn't work all that well.

Before his father joined us for the last week, we had time together such as we couldn't experience at home.  Including the commute, my work days were often 12 hours long.  In the mountains we began to learn how to do nothing together, though part of the nothing was a video arcade with old-fashioned ski-ball, yards of tickets for tempting prizes, and a vintage pinball game called "Cyclone."  We took turns with that, waiting to hear the mechanical voice say, "We have a WINNAH."
 At sundown, sitting on the deck by the lake, the no-see-ums would swarm and the bats would dive into their cloud.  A different version of nature than our back yard, though we did have possums, skunks and raccoons, but no swooping bats.  Bathed in insect repellant, we watched silently and the moon swam its path across the water.

For the few days before my son joined me, I drove to nearby towns, finding used bookstores in unlikely spots.  On the western face of the mountains, the smog climbed to almost 7,000 feet.  Looking toward where Los Angeles ought to be, all that was visible was a dense beige carpet that reached the horizon.  No wonder the trees were dying.  When I drove, the music was mostly 10,000 Maniacs In My Tribe and Natalie Merchant singing of a holiday by the sea, "Verdi Cries."

After that - what to call it? - interlude, object lesson, time out, foreshadowing, I went back to work for a few months, became dangerously ill with pneumonia and its after effects and never returned to my job.  The lesson I took from what seemed an urgent, possibly desperate need to be away, I have come to recognize as a pattern.  From wherever it comes, the call is heard:  do this.  Because our range of imagination, possibility, is limited we think we are doing what we feel compelled to do for an understandable reason, such as write.  The truth at times does not lend itself to words.

Would I have responded if I knew ahead of time that it was something else entirely?  Our guidance, intuition,  inner wisdom, knows how to bait the hook, how to get us to show up.  With time and the longer view - or sometimes in the moment - we can see how the lesson was arranged perfectly; we can understand.  The imprecise way I explain it is:  we think the story is about the car, but it's really about the place the car takes us.



The man in 119 takes his tea alone.
Mornings we all rise to wireless Verdi cries.
I'm hearing opera through the door.
The souls of men and women, impassioned all.
Their voices climb and fall; battle trumpets call.
I fill the bath and climb inside, singing.

He will not touch their pastry
but every day they bring him more.
Gold from the breakfast tray, I steal them all away
and then go and eat them on the shore.

I draw a jackal-headed woman in the sand,
sing of a lover's fate sealed by jealous hate
then wash my hand in the sea.
With just three days more I'd have just about learned the entire score to Aida.

Holidays must end as you know.
All is memory taken home with me:
the opera, the stolen tea, the sand drawing, the verging sea, all years ago.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Deus ex machina

Or why pay attention to those intuitive murmurs.

On Thursday, a day of forensically-examined anxiety, a book arrived that I'd ordered on a whim or unconscious directive.  Sandy Steen Bartholomew, Thursday's Hero.

Here are a few of the words she brought:

 "Zentangle (my note: intricate and focusing doodles) can help you stay calm and relaxed, but it also teaches you to notice your surroundings, to really pay attention, to use your hand-eye coordination - also good for balance - and Zentangle can change your thoughts.

"Anything is possible, one stroke at a time."

Doodling (which I think has been discussed at this site before) is something my hand does without consulting my mind.  By involving intentional thought, voila!, something more, something better,  a new tool, sufficient rocket fuel to escape my own twitchy gravity, as good as seeing the cavalry silhouetted against a prairie sky just after hearing the bugle notes that signal rescue.

Here is an example from another of Sandy's books, Totally Tangled.  I ordered it this morning. 

This is my thought process: if sitting quietly, doing nothing that I can detect, brings on a state close to panic, like Pigpen raising a cloud of dust in a snowstorm, I am excited by the possibility of paying deep attention to something I already enjoy and seeing if it can free me from feeling hideously, powerlessly stuck.  We have nothing to lose but our chains.